2022 REU opportunities at the Virginia Coast Reserve LTER

Applications are due noon ET on February 8th.

National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) positions are available with the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research (VCR-LTER) program for summer 2022. VCR-LTER researchers study patterns and mechanisms of ecosystem function, connectivity, and state changes in the coastal barrier system – from mainland marshes to intertidal and subtidal bay habitats and barrier islands. Along with focusing on one of the specific projects listed below, REUs also help collect data for ongoing long-term field projects.

REUs spend the summer in a thriving research community; the VCR-LTER is based in the small town of Oyster on Virginia’s Eastern Shore – one of the last coastal wildernesses on the east coast. The 10-week program begins the first full week of June. REUs are provided a stipend ($4,500) plus on-site lodging and research support administered through the University of Virginia. More information about VCR-LTER research initiatives and potential advisers can be found in Research Highlights at www.vcrlter.virginia.edu. Applicants seeking more information about specific projects may contact potential mentors directly. Program and application questions can be directed to Dr. Cora Baird, the program coordinator, at coraj@virginia.edu. Applications are due February 8th and offers will be extended beginning March 1st.

Please read through the project opportunities below. All projects are based at UVA’s Coastal Research Center on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

To apply, complete the application available here: https://virginia.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_5Aq0S1vgtMkcC1w.

  • Application elements you should be prepared to provide:
    • Information about you, your education, your grad school interests or preparation
    • Describe your existing research experience
    • Briefly describe your interest in each of up to 2 projects, including information about relevant coursework or experience that has prepared you for this research, and how participation would advance your academic and career goals. (500 words max per project)
    • Upload a resume or CV (include your last name in the file name)
    • Contact information for one reference
    • (Optional) upload transcripts; unofficial are fine
    • Describe how you have handled failure, responded to pressures, or learned from mistakes. (500 words max)
    • Share anything else we should know when considering your application

If you belong to an institution that is a member of the VA-NC Alliance for Minority Participation, you may also apply through the Alliance here: https://lsamp.virginia.edu/current-opportunities .

Projects available for summer 2022

Coastal Forest & Marsh Ecology – Dr. Keryn Gedan, GWU

*2 positions available*

Coastal forest trees are being killed by storm surge and groundwater salinization. As trees die off and marsh species move in, dead tree snags remain as a ghost forest. Scientists at the VCR are studying this process and the proximal controls on vegetation change in the marsh-forest boundary, in preparation for a large-scale forest disturbance experiment. We are looking for assistance in gathering baseline data on coastal forest plots that are experiencing these changes. We expect to see pine regeneration cease and adult tree stress and mortality across a gradient in saltwater exposure. As trees die, we believe that light availability changes and becomes sufficient first for shrubs, followed by marsh grasses. We are also interested in colonization and spread of the invasive species Phragmites australis within this transition zone. The student researcher will assist with data collection on measures of forest health, including tree and shrub censuses, vegetation monitoring plots, and litter trap sampling. By collaborating with several PIs involved in the experiment (Gedan, Kirwan, Fagherazzi, Johnson), the student will gain exposure to and skills in plant community ecology, insect ecology, geomorphology, and hydrology during the summer. Student will be supervised by Keryn Gedan. Must be able to stay through the first week or two of August, when the last round of plant community data will be collected.

Good to know: REUs on this project will work as a team to complete regular sampling and processing between major project initiatives. Study sites are accessed by hiking through coastal forest, where conditions can be hot and buggy. The field team will help ensure that everyone has what they need to be prepared to work safely and effectively.

Shorebird reproductive success in a rapidly changing ecosystem – Dr. Sarah Karpanty, VTech

The Virginia barrier island system along the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula provides an ideal setting for studying the response of coastal systems to climate-driven large-scale events, such as storms, and long-term trends, such as sea-level rise. The system is highly dynamic—it experiences high rates of sea-level rise and shoreline erosion that affect the elevation and structure of the dunes on the islands. These physical changes to the environment ultimately affect the vegetation and animal communities on the island, including shorebirds and their predators. This coastal system is a regional hotspot for breeding piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), the northern extent of breeding Wilson’s Plovers (Charadrius wilsonia), and supports the largest breeding population of American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Studies of these species in the context of other long term monitoring conducted in the VCR LTER project provides the unique opportunity to investigate how shorebird demography may signal ecosystem change and inform resilient coastal management. Our project aims to quantify how shorebird populations respond to this rapid, climate-driven ecosystem change by relating shorebird habitat use and breeding success to changing dune structure, vegetation communities, and predator populations. It also specifically investigates the drivers of American Oystercatcher reproductive success on Metompkin Island, the most important breeding location for the species on the Atlantic and Gulf and a site where reproductive success once thrived but has recently declined.

Good to know: This project does involve some very long field days and irregular work hours depending on the animals’ behaviors (early mornings, work on weekends). You must be willing and capable of working outside daily under sometimes rigorous conditions (heat, humidity, biting insects) and walking up to 10 miles per day over sand while carrying research equipment (~ 20 lbs. maximum). Details will be discussed with the field team before the start of the season.

Dune plant ecology and barrier island geomorphology – Drs. Julie Zinnert (VCU) & Natasha Woods (Moravian College)

To accurately predict barrier island response to sea-level rise and storm disturbance, the relationship between dune building/erosion and interior island vegetation dynamics needs to be understood. Expansion of a woody shrub into the island interior has affected long-term sediment movement inland, a process necessary for islands to maintain elevation with sea-level rise. Over short time scales (days to months), storms cause island erosion (the loss of sediment needed to sustain the island) and salinity exposure and physical disturbance of waves affect above and belowground vegetation in dunes and areas behind the dune. The REU student will assist with understanding how vegetation is impacted by disturbance in the dune and interior island environment. This student will assist in field measurements and laboratory analysis of above and belowground vegetation composition, biomass, and environmental characterization (e.g. soil salinity, water content, organic matter).

Good to know: Our projects are run as a team and students will always work with others in the field. Field work may involve 6-8 hour days with breaks (weather dependent) on a barrier island. Site access requires a 1.5 mile walk along the beach.

Assessing legacy Blue Carbon in a restored seagrass meadow – Drs. Peter Berg & Karen McGlathery, UVA

Seagrass meadows sequester and store large amounts of carbon, and in doing so, are one of nature’s solutions for mitigating climate change. This ‘blue carbon’ can stay locked up for decades to centuries as sediments accumulate over time and because decomposition is slow in these anoxic sediments. Seagrass meadows that once carpeted the seafloor of the Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) lagoons were lost in the 1930’s due to a pandemic disease and the impact of a large hurricane. The discovery of a small patch of seagrass in the late 1990’s spurred a large-scale restoration effort that continues to this day. This is now widely considered the world’s largest seagrass restoration project and research at the VCR LTER is the first to show the value of seagrass restoration in reinstating blue carbon stocks. This REU project will focus on determining if we can discover carbon stocks from the original seagrass meadows (pre-1930’s) that are buried deep in the sediments. Cores will be collected down to at least 1 meter, sectioned, and analyzed for organic matter and carbon content. The results will be important to our assessment of long-term carbon sequestration by seagrass. If we can find carbon deep in the sediment from the original seagrass meadows, we will know that despite widespread meadow loss, some buried carbon can remain stored. If we don’t not find carbon deep in the sediment, that suggests seagrass meadow loss also results in loss of carbon that had been sequestered and buried over decades. These results are highly relevant to current global efforts to issue carbon offset credits for seagrass restoration. In addition to this project, the REU student will work closely with a team of graduate student researchers working on various aspects of seagrass ecology at the VCR LTER.

Good to know: Our seagrass research is conducted at low tide, in waters typically waist deep or shallower, which do not require diving equipment or training. We work in teams from small boats and can provide instruction on working safely and effectively in these conditions.

From time lapse to investigations: creating a data extraction workflow that takes community science into the classroom – Kinsey Tedford (Castorani Lab, UVA) & Serina Wittyngham (Johnston Lab, VIMS)

In 2021, VCR LTER launched its first community-based science initiative, using photo stations to collect images from the community to build sequences of coastal change over time (Chronolog at VCR). We are seeking a student to establish the second phase of this project, in which data from the images is extracted for use in K-12+ classrooms, making remote coastal areas more accessible for student investigations. The overarching project goals are to: 1) determine the logistics for downloading time lapse imagery generated through the Chronolog repeat photography stations; 2) establish a work-flow for processing and generating data from these images; 3) create a well-defined, repeatable protocol for the continued processing of these images; and 4) visit the five stations to collect metadata including elevation and bearing. This REU position presents an exciting opportunity for a student to work at the intersection of community science and research, contributing a unique dataset to monitor long-term change in dynamic coastal ecosystems.

Good to know: The goal of this project is to create a workflow and protocol, not necessarily to collect data. Independence and self-motivation are priorities in this computer-based position. Regular planning and feedback sessions will be established, but in-person supervision may be limited. As with all REU position at VCR LTER, this REU will have opportunities to participate in field work on all long-term studies and other student projects.